Richard Eyre's production of Hedda Gabler at the Almeida is superb entertainment and superb spectacle, a lovingly created evocation of 1890s Norwegian society in which patriarchy and passion forge bonds of steel around the lives of its women. Hedda Tesman, nee Gabler, has returned from a six month honeymoon with her young academic husband. Their new home, a fashionable though neglected pile donated by the local Judge. Full of late nineteenth century furnishing, itself the taste of an older generation, Hedda's home is stultifying in its normalcy.
A free spirit from the moment of her first entrance, Hedda is obviously unsuited to the life of an academic's wife. Hedda longs for intrigue, for gossip, for fun and laughter, for freedom and sexual adventure. Her longing is tempe red by the painful realization that her position in society, her acceptance in this small community, relies on a spotless reputation and the imposition of social decency. Only the men who surround her can truly fulfil their fantasies and desires without the stain of scandal. Only the men can provide Hedda with some semblance of freedom through bondage; she must choose between the bondage of marriage or extra-marital control. For her there can nev er be real freedom.
Ibsen's play, written a year after the 61 year old playwright had fallen passionately in love with a young beauty of 18, teems with the anxiety of the bored and intelligent woman trying to live a sexually adventurous life. Although Ibsen denied a feminist agenda for his plays, claiming that they were cathartic exercises which at once explored the responsibility and guilt of contemporary society, there is little doubt that this is a hauntingly real depiction of social imbalance and gender oppression. In Hedda Gabler, Ibsen touches a nerve of male guilt which resonates to this day.
The seven strong cast of actors are perfectly cast. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the erudite though surprisingly insecure husband to Hedda, George Tesman, who returns to the security of his home town and the loving embrace of his possessive and busy-body aunt. George is obviously out of his depth with the fiery Hedda. At any moment her passions can boil over, and George's gentle manner is at once annoying and frustrating. Cumberbatch portrays this bumbling gentle man with humour and sympathy.
Of course, George has rivals for the affection of Hedda. Rivals that display a history for his wife which at best is sexually charged and at worst downright scandalous. We learn of men threatened with pistols as Hedda deftly handles the ultimate symbol of male potency and power, her father's army gun. Only when Hedda claims this male symbol as her own and shoots at the men who stalk her does she really feel in control, really feel a moment's freedom. Judge Brack, played with malevolent and indolent charm by Iain Glen, is one such hunter, eager to possess the ultimate prey of Hedda's young and violent flesh. Judge Brack has set the trap and the Tesman's have willingly entered it. Now all he has to do is wait for Hedda to slam the door behind her and resign herself to a life controlled by a lover and a husband.
Hedda's past will always haunt her though. Jamie Sives gives a wonderfully charged performance as the reformed drunkard and womaniser turned literary genius, Eilert Loevborg. George sees Loevborg as a rival for his academic post as university professor. The Judge recognizes Loevborg as the threat he really is; the object of Hedda's lust, passion and disdain. Hedda's relationship with Loevborg had ended some years before with violent threats. His return into her life provides the opportunity for revenge over the only man whose propensity for drinking displays a weakness. Hedda pounces on this weakness with animalistic glee.
Hedda is provided with the perfect foil in the love-struck Thea Elvsted, a young married woman whose elderly husband is blind to the passion which burns for the reprobate Loevborg. Thea metaphorically has Loevborg's 'baby', collaborating in the production of his ultimate masterpiece, his manifesto for the future. Thea's blinded love forces her to commit the ultimate social suicide of leaving her husband. An outcast from society, Thea is devastated by Hedda's manipulation of this intellectual inferior. Lisa Dillon gives an excellent performance as a woman whose sense of self-worth is correlative to the power she can wield over Loevborg, a power which Hedda views as suffocating the Bacchanalian freedom of her loathed love.
Gillian Raine as Aunt Juliana, willing to forgive Hedda's excesses if she provides her darling nephew with a child, and the family retainer, the housekeeper Berthe played by Sarah Flind, add to the reality of this impeccably observed production. It is however Eve Best, as Hedda herself, who provides the focal energy for its ultimate success. Best is fascinatingly charismatic in her performance. Every nuance of Hedda's troubled mind, every passionate outcry, every devious moment of maliciousness, are explored in Best's facial and physical expressions. Torment and torrid sexuality make this Hedda a three dimensional female force to reckon with. There is great sympathy and great loathing for this spoilt brat of a woman, responding to her status in a man's world with the dynamic aggression of her male counterparts. Best captures it all effortlessly. A star performance.
Rob Howell's beautiful design is filmic in its dimensionality. A towering Nordic stove to the right of the stage, scattered furniture, strategically placed table chairs, desk, piano, with a tall shuttered window leading to an imagined garden to the left. The space is given added depth by an ingenious gauze which hints at wooden panelling and brick but which allows ghostlike action to continue upstage. We can observe an inner and an outer world. Life-changing events and twists of narrative, traditionally forced into the wings, are majestically enacted in full view without compromising the overall focus of the play. Eyre's eye for detail, his ability to combine the stage with filmic and televisual realism perfectly complements the social realism of Ibsen's dark play. The Almeida should be deservedly proud to serve such quality to the London public. This must not be missed.
Kevin Quarmby © 2005